Demystifying the various materials used in packaging (especially plastic), their impact on the Earth and whether they are recycled.
Plastics (technically known as polymers) are made from petrochemicals — fossil fuel. Production of plastic from crude oil requires 3 to 5 times more energy than to make iron or steel from iron, glass from sand, or paper from timber. On the other hand, its light weight when used in packaging can cut down transportation energy by half.
Because plastic is made up of very large molecules, it’s resistant to all natural degradation and takes hundreds of years to decompose. In addition, while pure plastics have low toxicity thanks to being waterproof and chemically inert, plastic products contain a wide array of toxic additives that leach out when the product is discarded, or even as it is being used.
Plastic can be incinerated in a controlled way that neutralizes its polluting components, although that increases carbon emissions. Uncontrolled or open air burning also releases cancer-causing chemicals. Placed in a landfill instead, it acts as a carbon sink (it locks carbon in, removing CO2 from the atmosphere) — but will leach toxins into the ground.
As for recycling, although we use this word, plastic is not truly recyclable: the material loses its integrity with each recycling cycle, so it can only be downcycled. You cannot recycle a water bottle into a new water bottle. Sooner or later, you end up with a material that nothing more can be done with; that is the fate of any plastic that goes through our hands. For this reason we cannot be complacent about “recyclable plastic”.
All of the above outlines why plastic is an enormous issue that can only really be addressed by dramatic reduction. A few numbers:
- Since the 1950s, one billion tons of plastic have been discarded. Every piece of it still exists on earth somewhere.
- In the first 10 years of this century, more plastic was produced than the entire last century and the trend is still rising. Over 3 million tons of plastic produced annually is non-recyclable.
- 10 billion plastic bags are used worldwide every week, 2.5 million plastic bottles are used in the USA every hour, 500 million straws are used daily.
- Over 5 trillions pieces of plastic trash are floating in our oceans. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an area with a high concentration of small and microscopic pieces of plastic, floating over a roughly 5000 square km area of the Pacific, with incalculable harm to the wildlife. By 2050 its estimated there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans.
- Plastic recycling is drastically behind: In the USA in 2008, only 6.5% were recycled, while 7.7% were burned for energy and 85.5% ended up in landfills.
There are many types of plastic, and those we deal with in daily life are marked with symbols called resin identification codes. It’s really important to understand these, as unlike the three arrows suggest, they do not necessarily mean “recyclable”, and some types of plastic are much worse than others.
In a nutshell: 1 and 2 above are widely accepted for recycling; 4 and 5 are not often accepted (you’d have to call your local centre to find out); 3, 6 and 7 are not recycled and must be especially avoided. Here’s a closer look at each of them:
#1 PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate)
Makes: Synthetic clothing fiber (polyester, 60%+ of global produciton), water/carbonated drinks bottles (30%), peanut butter jars, plastic film, microwavable packaging, Mylar (aluminized PET film used in party balloons and some food packaging like crisps/chips).
Risks: Chemical leaching and bacterial growth, which is why products made of this plastic should be recycled but not reused. Improperly discarded, they leach toxins into the soil and water. In addition, polyester clothing releases fibers into the water stream when washed (half a million fiber per average laundry load), polluting freshwater and sea ecosystems.
Accepted for recycling? Commonly but only for bottles and other containers. Polyester fabric and Mylar only in a very few places.
Downcycled into: Carpet fiber, fiberfill material in winter clothing.
#2 HDPE (high-density polyethylene)
Makes: Hollow goods (30% of global production) such as detergent bottles, milk jugs, shampoo and soap bottles, tupperware; molded plastic cases, pipes (alkathene or polythene), banners, bottle caps, folding chairs, plastic surgery and more.
Risks: Actually relatively safe, and bottles made with it are suitable for re-use.
Accepted for recycling? Commonly.
Downcycled into: Plastic crates, plastic lumber, fencing, toys.
#3 PVC (polyvinyl chloride aka vinyl)
Makes: Plumbing pipes and guttering (50%), plastic wrap (cling film), shower curtains, window frames, flooring, PVC clothing (fake leather and Goth/Punk fashion), shrink wrap, food packaging, rain gear, bank cards, school supplies (lunch boxes, backpacks, binders), intravenous bags and tubing, teething rings.
Risks: Known as “the poison plastic,” it contains numerous toxins (depending on type: phtalates, lead, vinyl chloride) that leach out even during its life cycle as it is degraded by heat and light. Incinerating it releases toxic dioxin. (Read more)
Accepted for recycling? NO. Because of the leaching above, new PVC can only be made from virgin material, and only 1% is ever recycled.
Downcycled into: Industrial-grade items (flooring, mobile home skirting).
#4 LDPE (low-density polyethylene)
Makes: Plastic bags, some plastic wrap (cling film), squeezable bottles, wash bottles, dispensing bottles, sandwich bags, 6-pack rings, snap-on lids, trays and general purpose containers, packaging foam for computer hardware, bubble wrap; juice and milk cartons are made of a laminate of paperboard and LDPE.
Accepted for recycling? Not commonly.
Downcycled into: Garbage cans, lumber and furniture.
#5 PP (polypropylene)
Makes: Bottle caps, drinking straws, dairy product tubs that are heat-sealed with aluminium foil (cream and cheese containers), diapers and sanitary products, unwoven textiles, packing tape, carpets and rugs, potato chip bags, living hinges (e.g. Tic Tac box lid), electric kettles and other appliances that get hot, dishwasher-safe containers, car fenders (bumpers), plastic pressure pipe systems, thermal underwear, ropes, stationery, loudspeakers, polymer banknotes, plastic pails, cooler containers, car batteries, wastebaskets, trading card pockets, and more.
Risks: Classified as low to moderate hazard, although currently being investigated as toxins were found to leak from certain labware.
Accepted for recycling? Not commonly even though it can be recycled (only 3% recycled in the US).
Downcycled into: Ice scrapers, rakes, batter cables and other durable items.
#6 PS (polystyrene)
Makes: Packing foam and “peanuts” (Styrofoam), food containers including common yogurt containers, plastic cutlery, disposable cups, plates, CD cases, disposable razors, disposable coffee cups, plastic model assembly kits.
Risks: Discarded polystyrene does not biodegrade for hundreds of years and is not degraded by light. As it both floats and can be blown in the wind, vast quantities of it are swallowed by wild animals, filling their stomachs till they die. It is also highly flammable and easily ignited.
Accepted for recycling? NO. It takes too much energy to recycle it and so it usually isn’t. Despite this, it is manufactured to the tune of several billion kilograms per year.
Downcycled into: The little that is recycled makes insulation products, license plate frames, clothes hangers, toys, rulers, picture frames, park benches.
Lumped together under #7 are a number of different plastics. The most common ones are listed below, but none of them are recycled or even can be: they just accumulate. Another concern, for food and drink products, is potential leaching of BPA (Bisphenol A), a known endocrine disruptor.
- PE (Polyethylene): Wide range of inexpensive uses including supermarket bags, plastic bottles, plastic films (that thin layer of plastic sealing your produce).
- PVDC (Polyvinylidene chloride): Cleaning cloths, filters, screens, tape, shower curtains, garden furniture, doll hair, stuffed animals, fabrics, fishnet, pyrotechnics, shoe insoles.
- HIPS (High impact polystyrene): Refrigerator liners, food packaging, vending cups.
- PA (Polyamides aka Nylons): Fibers, toothbrush bristles, tubing, fishing line, low strength machine parts: under-the-hood car engine parts or gun frames. Note: Some polyamides (Nylon 4) biodegrade in a few months, at the same rate as wool and silk which are natural polyamides.
- ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene): Lego bricks and other toys, electronic equipment cases (computer monitors, printers, keyboards), drainage pipes, musical instruments, golf club heads, protective headgear, whitewater canoes, luggage and protective carrying cases, small kitchen appliances, 3D printing material.
- PC (Polycarbonate): CDs & DVDs, baby bottles, large water bottles,medical storage containers, eyeglasses, lenses, safety goggles, riot shields, security windows, traffic lights, “theft-proof” plastic packaging (that can’t be opened by hand), glasses in pubs, tealight candle containers, blender jars.
- PU (Polyurethanes): Cushioning foams, thermal insulation foams, surface coatings, printing rollers, some condoms; the most commonly used plastic in cars, making it among the 10 most used types of plastic.
- PMMA (Polymethyl methacrylate or Acrylic): Contact lenses (of the original “hard” variety), eyeglass lenses, glazing (Perspex, Oroglas, Plexiglas), aglets, fluorescent light diffusers, rear light covers for vehicles, casting resin, artistic and commercial acrylic paints.
Alternatives: Plastics that biodegrade
Even in the making, these have a lower environmental impact than other plastics. The energy used for manufacturing is still fossil-fuel based, but they can be made with alternative sources of energy and are therefore compatible with a future without petroleum.
PLA (polylatic acid) compostable plastic:
This is confusingly marked with the #7 symbol, but will have the letters PLA underneath it. PLA is a polymer derived from renewable resources such as cornstarch, tapioca or sugarcane, that decomposes into innocuous lactic acid. It is made into certain teabags, mulch film, certain disposable cups, medical implants, some 3D printing filament, compostable bags.
- PLA is one of the completely compostable materials used by Vegware. Based in Scotland, they offer over 250 compostable products spanning cutlery through to tableware, napkins, hot and cold drink cups, and takeaway packaging. These products are available worldwide: if you’re complaining to your local businesses about their use of plastic, be sure to suggest it as an alternative!
PSM (Plastarch Material):
A biodegradable resin made of starch and other biodegradable materials, that can withstanding high temperatures. It is stable in the atmosphere, but biodegradable in compost, wet soil, fresh water, seawater… It can also be incinerated safely, leaving a white residue that can serve as a fertilizer. As it can run on many existing thermoforming and injection molding lines, it has a wide range of applications: food packaging and utensils, personal care items, plastic bags, temporary construction tubing, industrial foam packaging, industrial and agricultural film, window insulation, construction stakes, and horticulture planters.
A polyester produced by certain bacteria processing glucose, corn starch or wastewater, it is similar to #5 PP – except it’s biodegradable without residue. It can be processed into a transparent film and is now reaching industrial scale in South America.
These heat resistant, rubber-like plastics have low toxicity, low chemical reactivity, do not support bacterial growth, and present no known hazard to the environment. They have a wide range of long-term, non-disposable uses: most usefully for us, in cooking utensils, reusable baking mats, non-sticking bakeware and other kitchen utilities, as well as baby bottle teats, durable “rubber” bands and bracelets. Silicones takes more energy to manufacture than other plastics, but can be used for many years, then recycled. There are contradictory claims regarding whether silicone biodegrades or not, but its longevity and resilience makes it by far the best polymer to adopt for durable goods. (Read more)
Paper and Card
Paper may seem like the lowliest packing material, but it is, and should be treated as, a precious resource. More than any other, it requires a sacrifice of life, and so should not be casually wasted. It still costs millions of trees every year, only 16% of which were planted for this purpose: the rest come from forest ecosystems, which are destroyed in the process and cannot be replaced by replanting trees (also, monoculture tree plantations are not suitable wildlife habitats, nor do they support biodiversity.) 35% of all tree felling globally is for the purpose of making paper, and 41% of this paper is for packaging (the most abundant paper waste is newspaper, followed by cardboard and magazine/advertising material.)
In addition to this, the pulping process consumes vast amounts of energy and causes air and water pollution (with chlorine being used for bleaching). A tonne of paper consumes 20 full-grown trees, requires 90,000L of water and emits 1.46 tonnes of greenhouse gases. And while it biodegrades relatively quickly, we send it to landfills quicker than it can decompose — which is in any case an unjustifiable waste, when there is every reason to recycle it.
Recycling paper requires considerably less raw material (recycling 1 ton of newsprint saves about 1 ton of wood; recycling 1 ton of office paper, which is higher grade, saves more than 2 tons of wood!) as well as less bleaching, energy and water. But, from virgin wood pulp to the end of its life, it can only be recycled 4 to 7 times, as the fibers get shorter and less usable with every cycle. This is why recycled paper usually contains a certain amount of virgin wood pulp. The proportions of recycled vs virgin fiber in paper marked “recycled” varies, with Europe, for instance, requiring more recycled contents than the USA.
Yet still today, more than 90% of printing and office paper has no recycled content at all. The reluctance to switch to recycled paper for office use (which represents a vast amount of waste) is linked to the belief that recycled paper is lower grade and more expensive. This is not entirely true: industrial grade recycled paper (used for producing kraft liners, paper boards, cartons, book covers, files, chip boards) is much cheaper. The higher grades, used to produce paper for writing, photocopy and printing, are more expensive, but that is due to the lack of demand. In other words, the more we buy recycled paper, convincing the paper industry to invest in recycling, the more we bring the price down.
Here are some more details and numbers from the Green Press Initiative.
Alternatives: Tree-free paper
Other fiber crops can and have been used to make paper, with results of varying quality (for instance, rice paper is an institution in East Asia, but not so suited to modern uses). But true, “xerox-quality” paper can now be made using highly sustainable fiber sources: sugar cane waste and bamboo residue. These fibers are also being used by certain companies to make disposable necessities such as toilet paper, a very encouraging development that could eventually end paper-related deforestation.
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Drink and food cans (those with the easy-opening tab) make up an overwhelming portion of the world’s aluminium use. Other disposable (but recyclable) uses are foil containers and wrap. It is also used (not for packaging) in laundry detergent, cement, aspirin, roofing, house siding, spark plugs, personal care products (makeup, toothpaste, deodorant), appliances, fluorescent light bulbs, dishwashers, cookware coatings, chemicals, polishing compounds, antacids, and all sorts of transport vehicles.
Producing aluminium from raw materials is incredibly onerous: the Earth is strip-mined for bauxite ore, which destroys natural habitat and introduces toxins into the aquifer, and the mineral is extracted using copious amounts of water and electricity before being refined. Entire power plants are built to support this industry. According to the EPA, the perfluorocarbons released during aluminum smelting are 9,200 times more harmful than carbon dioxide in terms of promoting global warming. (Read more)
However, recycling scrap aluminium, which is done by re-melting it, takes only 5% of the energy (often renewable energy at that), and there’s no loss of quality so it can be recycled indefinitely. Knowing this, it makes no sense to incinerate it (which releases toxic compounds) or send it to landfill (where it takes 50 years to decompose). It’s the most valuable of all household recyclable materials so the process is well monitored and very effective. Brazil recycles 98.2% of its can production, Japan 82.5%: globally 69% of all cans are recycled (though Americans waste $1 billion worth of aluminium every year!) As the material is also very light, it rivals plastic in terms of transportation energy.
So aluminium is a nightmare in primary state, but an ideal recyclable. We can support the use of the recycled stuff by only buying products made of or packaged in it, and making sure to return them to the recycling stream after use. And we can also demand from suppliers that they use it, by boycotting primary aluminium — and saying so. Also, by avoid packaging altogether when possible, we can help keep down the demand for aluminium that keeps primary production going.
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